June 27, 2021
For our second scripture reading today we are again going into the Old Testament. This time we hear from Lamentations… which is a series of five poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. In my preparation for today’s sermon I learned that the Hebrew title for this book is not Lamentations… but is instead the first word of the first poem… How. Somehow just knowing that tells me so much about the soul of what these words contain. Listen for God’s Word speaking to you this time through Lamentations chapter 3 starting with verse 22.
READ Lamentations 3:22-33
So these words… dropping the needle here with these verses and only hearing these words… creates a false picture because it edits out all the gut wrenching, horrific experiences that are behind these Lamentations. Not knowing the whole story… avoiding the pain and the darkness… hollows out these words and turns them more into empty slogans… something more akin to wishful thinking. The steadfast love of God endures forever, however, is a sinew of truth that holds these scriptures together. This is not an exaggeration… you can’t properly understand the Old Testament… you can’t understand its theology without fully embracing what the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was like for the Jews. This event touches everything. Not only did it change the theology going forward… but it they also went backwards and reflected on what had come before. This book we read from every week… what writings contained in this book was effected by these events. Something like… being chosen by God… what that meant changed. After the destruction of Jerusalem, a new responsibility came with election. Election now had a purpose from God that it didn’t have before. The people were expected to be carriers of God light… taking that light into the world. Again… it is not an exaggeration to say that even their whole understanding of the cosmos changed after this point in history. I thought about what I could use as an analogy to move or ignite your imaginations. Of course, the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 first came to mind… but that event that we’ve witnessed time and again through our television screens… truthfully… that’s too small. The destruction of Jerusalem was more on the scale of Nagasaki or Hiroshima where in your imagination you have to replace the atom bomb with the up-close brutality of swords and spears and fire. You have to imagine the effects of a long-term siege on the city and the starvation and the disease that would have ravaged the people within even before the walls fell… even before the soldiers came pouring into the city with fierce and wanton destruction.
And that only gets you toward understanding the experience of this level of physical destruction. Layer on top of that the emotional devastation. And on top of that the spiritual destruction… because I can say to you… again… without exaggeration… this should have been it for the Jews. This should have been the end of Judaism and the Jewish people. At this point in time they should have faded into history so that only those who are interested enough in ancient civilizations of the middle east would be learning about them through some textbook in some higher level college class somewhere. We definitely shouldn’t be reading and talking about them every week from pulpits around the world. We definitely shouldn’t still be listening to their wisdom and insight and deeper reflections of what is to be a human being. And this God… this God that we talk about incessently… this god should have gone the way of all the other gods from those cultures that faded away from this historical period… all the names of those gods you’ve never heard of or know about… all their stories and rituals and ethics.
These words we’ve read. These are not just pretty words of faith that we speak in the sunshine in a nice green field of flowers… the buzz of insects and the streams of light creating a haze of bliss and comfort. Put into the full context of what’s being said here in Lamentations…these are stubborn words… stubborn words of resolve that are spoken while standing in the smoldering ashes of the world that’s been burned down around you. If the emotional wrenching Hebrew title of this collection of five poems is “How”… to appropriate a phrase from the culture… these words we’ve read today… these words are the words of “Ah hell no”… the stubborn decision that in all this… in all this chaos and mayhem and destruction… this is the spot from which I will not be moved… this is the place where I will make my stand… this is the foundation upon which I will rebuild… and seek to know God better.
Pure spiritual stubbornness. “The steadfast love of God never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” To say these words when nothing around you gives any witness to their truth. To say these words when there are easier paths to take before you. The faith that requires the reward… that is built upon the expectation of the blessing… that needs the validation of the world and what the world has to offer… that faith cannot use these words. The faith that is grounded in the self and self-interests won’t make it to these words. The basis for such stubbornness just isn’t there. Even the faith that demands always happiness and light and works as a shield to keep away the harder times and challenges of life. That faith may try to use these words… but in that use they become so shallow and thin that they easily crack under the slightest pressure.
In a world of many gods, when the god of one people… a people like the Babylonians… when the god of one people shows such power to destroy and dominate… people throughout time have walked away from their defeat by embracing the new… the more powerful god before them. And so did many of the Jews of that day… drawn to what this new god could bring to them. Leaving behind them in the ashes what was clearly too weak… and insufficient. People who have nothing… who feel no connection to past or future… come to believe in power as truth. Come to believe in power and dominance as true expressions of what a god is supposed to be. It’s an easier path to walk even if it leads nowhere as power fades and a greater promising power is always around the corner to fill the spaces left behind. The Babylonians took the world from the Assyrians. The Persians will take the world from Babylonians. The Greeks would supplant the Persians and Rome will take from the Greeks. And the dust will eventually consume them all.
But the Spirit of God never ceases. The love of God is steadfast. They are new every morning and the dust of history and death will never bury them… never lock them away in the grave with all your banners and flags and swords and guns… all the weapons of war physical, emotional… spiritual. All instruments of death lead only to death. Only the steadfast love of God can take a symbol of terror and pain and death… and turn that symbol into one of hope and reconciliation and the promises of a new day. Saints… only resurrection makes the tomb empty. Right? This is what we believe. Resurrection which is fueled by radical grace… itself an act of God’s steadfast love.
The stubbornness of a faith in the steadfast love of God is what takes us from this moment in the ashes to that radical grace expressed so perfectly through Christ.
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.” These laments were not the end… they are an important part of revaluing… revaluing what is really important… what is truly everlasting… revealing where God abides in this steadfast love of God’s. Just a few verses on from our reading… that resolve to revalue is made clear. “When human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted – does the Lord not see it?” “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven. We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” These are not words of blame… the kind of words that lead to a performative act of repentance and contrition. These are the stubborn words of faith… the stubborn words that the Lord is my portion… I will hope in God. That hope has to have a foundation so true and so strong that nothing can sweep it away… that no experience will alter it. The Temple lay in ruins. All their worshipful habits and practices were gone. The festival days and the way to present sacrifices. Wealth and power had been stolen. Those things had been swept away. The transformation would have to be from within… from the ignored words of prophets who spoke in times of plenty about what true hope in God was like. They had spoken against all the excesses of worship. They spoke about the noise of clanging cymbals and the emptiness of sacrifices. You may be entertained through your worship… you may feel the excitement of the moment… but none of that means anything as long as injustice continues outside the doors of the sanctuary. You may argue incessantly over doctrine and right faith and who has the authority to impose their will upon the people of faith… but all that means nothing as long as the poor go hungry. You may slap the label of sinner on this person and that… but every judgement takes away your humbleness before God… every caustic denial to the other drains from you the compassion that is so vital to your stubborn understanding that God’s mercies never come to an end.
The steadfast love of God endures forever. Regardless of which Babylon rules in power. The steadfast love of God endures forever. Regardless of the condition of whatever current Temple stands. The steadfast love of God endures forever… and that love calls us to the same love that is able to transform the heart through our stubborn hope in God no matter the conditions that surround us… through our stubborn faithfulness to the ways of God as revealed to us in Christ no matter the outcome… no matter how successful our influence on the world around us is… a stubbornness to be true to God’s steadfast love. Amen.